Samoan actor Ray Chong Nee on his heritage, his desire to give back, and his dream for a King Lear of colour. By Steve Dow.

Bell Shakespeare’s Ray Chong Nee set to tour Othello

Samoan-born, Melbourne-based actor Ray Chong Nee.
Samoan-born, Melbourne-based actor Ray Chong Nee.

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On the island of Upolu, in the high inland ranges of Aleisa, about 17 kilometres west by road from the Samoan capital of Apia, you will find the farming community where the Melbourne-based stage actor Ray Chong Nee was raised, and where his family still owns smaller plots. 

Chong Nee spent about half of his first 12 years there, after being born in Apia’s Moto’otua Hospital in 1983, and the other half of those years in New Zealand, his family shuttling back and forth for work and for education, before they settled in Australia on the brink of his adolescence. 

There had been no electricity where he grew up in Samoa: in the very stony but fertile soil of Aleisa, the wider Chong Nee family had worked their eight hectares by hand, growing taro and bananas. 

When Chong Nee’s father, Lui, a mechanic, built a toilet on the family plot, other villagers came around to inspect it. Older generations who had never left the islands were not sure what this contraption was. They told tales for entertainment. A witchdoctor or healer versed in natural remedies lived across the road, and he had some good stories. 

Chong Nee, sitting in a cafe near his home in South Yarra, recalls Sina and the Eel, told in various versions across Polynesia. It’s a fable describing how the coconut, another Aleisa crop, came to be.

“Sina was a young woman who was very beautiful, and she always went down to a little – what do they say in Australia: a billabong, or pond? – she’d go down there and there was an eel who loved to look at her. The eel was attracted to her; she wasn’t attracted to him. She escaped. But he found her in another pond.”

He skips over the part of the story in which Sina takes refuge in a village, whose chiefs attack the eel when it reappears in their water. Across Samoa, chiefs uphold customary law and order, but Aleisa is an exception, lacking that hierarchical structure of chieftainship. 

Chong Nee’s paternal grandmother was from a Samoan chieftain family, however. She married a Chinese man. “The eel told Sina to cut off his head, and bury it and out of it would come something that would be for her, to show his eternal love for her. A coconut tree grew, and when a coconut fell, she picked it up. There were two holes in it. That’s how the coconut came to be, from the eel.” 

In longer accounts, Sina drinks from these holes – representing the eel’s two eyes – and is said to be kissing the eel. Sina’s famous line to the eel in Samoan is E pupula mai, ou mata o le alelo. Basically, a demand the eel stop staring at her like a demon. 

When he was five or six, Chong Nee’s mother, Seneuefa, who is Samoan-English, noticed he was beginning to lose his Samoan language living in New Zealand. He went to about 16 different primary schools, many around Wellington, as his family moved from house to house. Having had to sacrifice her own education, despite excelling at English, to work on her family’s farm, Seneuefa took Ray back to Samoa to repair his language skills. 

Chong Nee sips his soy flat white. He also had a Swiss–German great-grandmother, he notes. Samoa was a German colony between 1900 and 1914, before New Zealand marched in and seized control for 48 years. Samoa’s independence took effect in 1962. 

The 33-year-old actor is dressed now in a white T-shirt, and has a pencil behind his right ear, a small ring in his nose, and an academic text on the works of Shakespeare on the table. 

The book is part of his preparation for playing the Moorish general of the Venetian army, Othello, for Bell Shakespeare’s latest production. Over five months, Chong Nee will play the title role in 27 theatres around Australia.

He’s also signed up at a gym for weights three times a week, Pilates and aqua and circuit classes, and is preparing for Bell movement director Nigel Poulton’s classes using Meyerhold techniques, a series of physical exercises that help convey emotions and meaning to fellow actors and the audience. 

Chong Nee used these techniques preparing to play Theseus, Oberon, Flute and Thisbe for Bell’s The Dream last year. He usually plays African, African-American or Middle Eastern characters. An Indian here, an existentialist French Algerian there. Often, marginalised characters. But he has never had the chance to depict his own Pacific Islander heritage on Australian stages. 

“Ray has great swagger and charisma,” says Bell’s artistic director, Peter Evans. “He’s exciting, and that character [Othello] is a bit of a rockstar, so well respected, so it’s a perfect fit.” 

Does he have the rockstar swagger? Chong Nee laughs. “Depends on where I am.” Can he sing? “I can. I wouldn’t say rockstar, though.” 

Chong Nee cites Australian hip-hop artist Candy Bowers as an influence. “She just doesn’t take shit from people about being a woman of colour. At times I look at her and I feel so small … but I think I am doing the same, just in my little way.”

Does he sing hip-hop himself? “I lean more towards gospel than anything. I’ve got such an untrained singing voice that it’s just naturally raw. Rockstar swagger? I don’t know. I think I am very at home with myself, and so if people perceive that as a swagger, then so be it.”

Othello is the only major dark-skinned character Shakespeare wrote. In the wrong hands, the play named for him might seem racist or misogynistic, and be potentially misread as an anti-miscegenation tract. Othello’s Machiavellian army colleague, Iago, tricks him with language and a pilfered handkerchief to kill the thing he loves: the Venetian beauty, Desdemona. 

Othello’s misplaced jealousy grows murderous quickly. The African-American playwright Toni Morrison, whose rewrite of the story, entitled Desdemona, was seen on Australian stages late last year, blamed the “quiet approval” of brotherhood.

A “Moor” in Shakespeare’s time meant people of Berber or Arab descent, but came to be applied to Africans. Today, it stands broadly for racial and cultural “otherness”, says Chong Nee. He won’t, incidentally, be singing in Othello, but he will be using Samoan language in part of the production.

“It’s just one little nod to my heritage, but also it’s a nod to an otherness that people would often identify with Othello, and a nod to the Pacific, because that’s where we are.” 

Chong Nee would like to see Australia use indigenous languages more in schools and on television, as New Zealand does. “I’m hoping that I can be a part of that movement.”

1 . Trying to fit in

Ray’s father, Lui Chong Nee, came to Newcastle, Australia, in 1993 with one of his brothers and both were seeking work. They moved north to Brisbane, finding work with a Chinese wholesaler who delivered food to restaurants. Within two years Ray and his mother and siblings had migrated to Australia, where the same wholesaler had offered his father another job, 125 kilometres west in Toowoomba.

“High school was in Toowoomba,” says Chong Nee, who since the age of nine or 10 had been wont to get up in front of class and tell a story or sing a song and dress up in costume. 

“It was tough. The majority of students were Caucasian … throughout the whole school there were four dark-skinned students. But then, throw into that my aspirations to be an actor, and it didn’t really help.

“So I fought even harder to fit in, which meant I did the debating clubs, I did the athletics carnivals, the weightlifting, Rotary/Lions youth programs, Goethe-Institut. I put my finger in everything. I mean, it eventually got me to vice-captain.”

His parents wanted him to do well at school, and he wanted to do well, in turn, for them. “Filial piety’s a big thing in the islands,” he says, “being able to get to a better place than your parents so that you can look after them when they’re older.”

There were not many Pacific Islanders living in Toowoomba. Some local whites told him to “go home”.

“Something about Toowoomba is… something about the small – I’ve got to be careful… There is a mentality in the rural areas about otherness. Because Toowoomba is that place between country and city, you’ve got a lot of kids coming in from places who haven’t been exposed to people of colour except on screens. 

“So, I was exposed to people telling me to go home, using ‘nigger’. And it was quite a shock to my system.”

Chong Nee studied acting at the University of Southern Queensland at Toowoomba. But on graduating, he decided to think bigger. “I was in Sydney for five years, trying my hardest to break into that city, and it proved very difficult.”

Othello was never entirely accepted given his racial background, I suggest, having to work twice as hard at his ambition. “Definitely,” Chong Nee says. “I mean, I can draw inferences from my own life in that aspect, where I still feel sometimes that I’m still on the edge of certain circles, where I have worked so hard to be in. That is just a mind frame that is something that needs to change.

“I was talking to [the actor] Robert Menzies the other day, and he says that the day we take away colourblind casting, because we don’t need it, and racism isn’t a problem, is the day that a white man can finally play Othello again. Which is so correct. And then, the next night, King Lear will be black. It’s a concept that I think we’re going towards, but very small paces.”

Melbourne’s art scene wrought fresh opportunity for Chong Nee: Four Larks Theatre’s Jesse Rasmussen saw him in a production in Sydney, and cast him as the titular lead in her co-adaptation of the Ibsen tale Peer Gynt in Melbourne’s Northcote at the end of 2010. The reviews were strong. “His strong presence substantiates the character of Gynt,” Crikey wrote, “while his energy effectively translates the mercurial Gyntish-ness of Gynt.”

But the return to Sydney was difficult. “I finished Peer Gynt, and I went back to Sydney, and I was pouring a beer at a bar I was working at, and I just thought: I can’t do this anymore,” says Chong Nee. “So with $1000 in my bank account, I packed up and moved down.” Has he had to pull beers since? “Yep,” he laughs.

But things are picking up. Playing Meursault in a one-man adaptation of Albert Camus’s The Outsider at Carlton’s La Mama Theatre in February – the first show he has carried alone – earned a four-star review from The Music: “The hero of the production is Ray Chong Nee, who inhabits this play with absolute precision … his physicality and vocal control is phenomenal, transforming so completely into each supporting character.” 

Cameron Woodhead, in The Age, called Chong Nee’s Shavi in I Call My Brothers for Melbourne Theatre Company last year a “luminous comic performance”.

He’s happily partnered with Melbourne-based Australian Ballet public relations manager Prue Vercoe, whom he met when she was in-house publicist for Bell Shakespeare. Main stages beckon, but his origins still lead his world view. 

“I feel that I am also put on this planet to give back to it, and that means giving back to the people that I can, so a whole bunch of volunteering for certain things, homeless shelters, whatever.”

Three years ago, Chong Nee helped form a private  collective of Pacific creative types, based in Sydney, although his involvement was from Melbourne. Others in this group began what became the Pasifika Film Fest. Chong Nee hopes Pacific creatives of stage and screen might yet gain a national focus.

“I want to be part of a collective that can showcase our heritage, our culture, but also use our place in our industry to bring others up,” he says. “I’m aware I have a voice now, that I can lead.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 2, 2016 as "Pacific communion".

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Steve Dow is the 2020 Walkley Arts Journalism award recipient.

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